The warrior’s dilemma: My biggest parenting challenge has been renegotiating my relationship with death

On Thanksgiving Day this past November, something incredible happened: my wife gave birth to my beloved baby girl. It had been a long road, much longer than 9 months, and far more difficult a journey than most people realize. The birth of my daughter was more than a momentous occasion for my wife and I, it was something that we had both grown to fear would never happen at all.

We had decided to have a child while I was still on active duty, and after months of trying the good old fashioned way, we finally relented to testing. The process, I’ll readily admit, is a lot easier for the man — since it basically boils down to romancing yourself into a cup and moving on with your life. For a woman, it’s far more arduous. Strangers with strange devices rummaging around the parts of you no one wants to have them. Laying around in MRI machines while doctors inject easy to track dyes to peer into the internal workings of your plumbing. It goes on.

Worst of all for both of us, however, was the guilt. We each stewed quietly, too afraid to bring up the laundry list of reasons why we each felt that our predicament was our own fault.

I’ve done some pretty bad things. Maybe I just don’t deserve to be a father.

Those musings hurt twice over: first because of the shame over what you’ve done to your spouse (“she should leave me so she can be a mom”) and again when you think about your own wish to be a parent. Of course, little did I realize, she was going through her own laundry list of lifetime transgressions – making all the same decisions about her own fault, her own unworthiness, secretly scared that her husband would leave her in search of a more fertile pasture to start his family. Despite having the sort of relationship where we talk about everything, we never talked about these fears. They were too frightening, too real.

Now, in hindsight, I can honestly say that I think my daughter’s delayed arrival did happen for a reason. Had she been born while I was on active duty, my medical retirement would have been much more difficult and I likely wouldn’t have gone back to school. Had she been born while I worked in HR. I probably would have finished my MBA instead of changing majors and you’d find me, miserable as ever, inside my office near the production floor of a defense contractor. If she’d been born during my first year as a writer, none of us could have afforded to eat.

Instead, she was born on the most fitting of holidays: Thanksgiving of the same year that I became a senior staff writer for a website I once followed on Facebook and thought to myself, “one day… I hope I’m doing stuff like that.” I’m living a winning lottery ticket, and I thank my lucky stars every day. I’ve had a lot of jobs, but now I have the two best ones in the world: being a dad, and being a writer.

I’ve never understood the urge parents have to instill fear in expecting mothers and fathers. Everyone warns you, over and over, about the difficulties of parenting. By the time my daughter was born, I had gotten the “you’ll never sleep again,” “you’ll never have sex again,” “you’ll never have money again,” speeches from just about every person I knew that had ever become a parent. People love to tell you that they love their kids, but if you ask them about parenting, they act like it’s a prison sentence and they’re trying to scare you straight. It doesn’t get better once the baby is born either — every stage your kid enters is “the last good one” before the real horror begins. Teething, potty training, bedtimes. All future skirmishes parents are happy to tell you that you’ll suffer heavy losses in.

It’s all bullshit. Yeah, you sleep less. Yeah, you can’t go drop pills at the club on a Tuesday night or whatever the hell it is most parents seem so upset about missing out on. Instead, you get to hang out a little person that, I shit you not, will occupy your every waking thought, fill you with happiness and excitement, and give you a greater sense of purpose than anything I’ve ever experienced.

That doesn’t seem so bad to me. To be honest, I never slept much to begin with.

After 9 months of well-intentioned warnings about how hard and exhausting and miserable being a parent is (and to be fair, there are times when it genuinely is the first two), you finally bring your baby home and suddenly realize… it’s just you guys and this baby. You’re a team facing the challenge of growing up together. Some parts will be tough, some parts will be great, but to be honest — my best experiences, the ones that truly shaped who I am, weren’t the fun-filled and easy going days at Six Flags. They were the times I was with a team, facing challenges and taking the days as they came: the good and the bad. Now I have my own three-person fire team, and we’re taking on the world in just the same way.

But there is one thing I was never warned about — one struggle of parenting that I’m not sure if I share with others. I was ready for the sleepless nights. I was ready for the anxiety of her getting her first cold, and the fussy misery that is teething. What I wasn’t ready for, however, was the realization that having a baby means renegotiating my relationship with death.

I’ve lived the better part of my life with an understanding that death’s looming presence was always nearby. According to a marriage counselor we visited for a while, my pursuit of dangerous situations and hobbies was born out of self-hatred. He and his degrees figured me for a masochist — I assume because he had never pushed himself to the edge, just to peer over and see what lies beyond. He’d never pushed through broken bones, broken hearts, and broken spirits to finish something for the sake of a team. He had never had the opportunity to learn the joy of self-sacrifice; when something great gets accomplished and you know you had a hand in it.

There’s a freedom that comes with knowing you might get hurt or killed and accepting that risk. Whether you’re in a fire fight or climbing a tree to rescue a kitten, you recognize that you could get hurt, you weigh the cost, and then you push forward — knowing that what you’re setting out to do is more important than what you are. I’m going to climb that mountain, I’m going to take that hill, I’m going to fight until the fight is all there is left of me.

But not anymore.

Although I’m old enough to have been a village elder in another era, I’m not so old that there isn’t any fight left in me. I get up each morning and watch the news while I check messages from sources and colleagues – giving me two different accounts of the same flames that seem to be engulfing so much of our world. It’s good for business, of course — if the world stopped burning, there’d be less to write about — but it reminds me of all the battles being fought out there, all the mountains left unclimbed, all the tough days going by without anyone there to experience them.

Now, when I think of risk, it’s only about ways to mitigate it. Now, when I think about death, it’s not in the same sense as before. The presence of death around me used to make me feel more alive by comparison, gave what I was doing an air of importance. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m scared of it.

Not because I don’t know what comes next for me, but because I’m so afraid of leaving my little girl without a dad.

Ideas still pop up: fights that are worth fighting, risks that are worth taking and for a fleeting moment, I get that old feeling again — purpose mixed with excitement — but then I remember the beautiful smiling face of my daughter. I sigh, shrug, and tuck the idea away.

I’ve lost too many friends to be afraid of dying. If there’s any afterlife waiting for me, regardless of how I’m judged, there are sure to be some familiar faces — but without me, my wife has to face the challenges and the joys of parenting alone. Without me, my daughter has to face the adventure, the excitement, and the heartbreak of growing up without her dad.

And I’d miss it too.

I don’t miss sleep. I don’t miss going to the movies. I don’t miss spending more time with friends or not worrying about when it’s time to refill the humidifier in her nursery. These are the changes in me I not only saw coming, but I longed for.

The only thing I do miss, if I’m being honest, is that presence of death. Reminding me that I come from a long line of warriors that valued accomplishment over self. Our society was built on the backs of men and women that were willing to give all they had to a cause, and now I’m not one of them anymore. It’s easy to go looking for a good death. It’s a lot harder, I’ve found, to resign yourself to the long haul… but it’s worth it.

Because I want to see my little girl grow up into an incredible woman. I want to hold my wife’s hand and choke back tears on her wedding day. I want to hold her baby in my arms, knowing that she too will have to recognize that a torch, burning with our warrior spirit, has now been passed to a new generation.

And I have no doubt that they’ll make us proud.

Images courtesy of the author

Editor’s Note: This piece was first published on April 12, 2018 on NEWSREP